A Critical Interaction with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I am not one trained in education, pedagogy, philosophy of education or any related field. Freire’s book was a required read for my first class in that field. I found it an interesting read and worth some dialogue. Those of you trained in the field, here’s my thoughts – don’t hesitate to push back!

Paulo Freire’s short book Pedagogy of the Oppressed has shaped the field of education, specifically educational philosophy, since its publication in 1970. As D. Schugurensky observes, “There is ‘before’ and ‘after’ Freire, both in the philosophical approach to adult education, as well as in its practice.” Paulo’s educational philosophy has vast implications not only in the secular realm, and not only for Christian educators, but also for the church as an institution; thus, it is a work which must be engaged critically. That is the goal of this short exchange, to engage critically with Freire, asking which aspects of his educational philosophy should be accepted, which parts should be rejected, which can be modified, and how his work can/should shape the educational ministries of the Christian church. This short interaction with Freire is organized into four sections, each presenting a theme from Freire’s work alongside a more robust biblical alternative. 

The Goal of Education: Transformation vs. Glorification Freire’s educational philosophy was born from his work with underprivileged, illiterate peasants in South America (which does make it challenging to translate his philosophy into a largely literate and privileged North American context) in which oppression was a tangible reality and Marxist ideas found fertile soul in which to grow. Freire understands that oppression leads to the dehumanization of both the oppressed and the oppressor. In many instances, oppressed people liberate themselves only to find that they have in turn become the new oppressors, and in most cases, the oppressed are also sub-oppressors. To escape this cycle and liberate both oppressor and the oppressed is to allow both to be more fully human, and requires that people develop a critical awareness of their reality so that “through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity” (Freire, 47). This is the role of the educator – to work alongside the oppressed “to unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation”(Freire, 54) so that in time the liberation is a true and permanent setting free and all men are fully humanized. What should the Christian make of this? Is liberation and humanization the end goal of education? Possibly, if we consider only the horizontal plane of the educational task. But the Christian educator must also me mindful of the vertical plane and our Godward responsibility. If liberation and humanization is the educator’s goal on the horizontal plane, doxology must be the goal on the vertical plane. Or, in other words, Freire’s philosophy accounts for the second table of the law in seeking to promote love for neighbor. But as Christian educators, we have a responsibility to the first table as well, to promote the love of God in the human heart. In this, Freire’s philosophy obviously comes up short. His philosophy begins with and ends with man and our responsibilities to man, not God. Thus, as a fully orbed philosophy of education, it must be rejected. However, as part of an educational philosophy that does not neglect our duties toward God, it has some promise. After all, it would be an equally critical error to neglect our duties on the horizontal plane, our duties to the second table of the law (cf. 1 John 4:20).

Several key themes of Freire’s philosophy will be examined in this light. 

The Method of Education: Banking vs. Problem-Posing Education Central to Freire’s educational philosophy is the distinction between “banking” and “problem-posing” approaches to the educational task. By banking, Freire means an approach to education that sees students as “containers” or “receptacles” to be filled with the knowledge the teacher possesses. The more knowledge a teacher can impart, the better teacher they are; the more a student can retain the better student they are. Freire contends that this approach drives a wedge, an untrue and oppressive wedge, between the student who supposedly knows little or nothing and the teacher who knows everything. Such an approach, contends Freire, is a tool in the hands of the oppressor by which they domesticate the student, teaching them to adapt to the situation rather than to change it (Freire, 74). This oppressive form of education must be broken down and students as well as teachers must, according for Freire, come to see themselves as col-earners. Freire writes, “Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety (emphasis added)…They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relation with the world” (Freire, 79). He continues, “Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality… [so that students] will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge” (Freire, 82). The result is that students begin to see that reality is transformable and take up the challenge not only to transform themselves but their entire social context.

Two critical observations should be made. First, one should question whether Freire’s problem-posing pedagogy is even possible apart from some prior banking of information which he rejects in toto. Stephen Prothero recalls, “So when I finished graduate school and became a professor myself, I told students that I didn’t care about facts. I cared about having challenging conversations, and I offered my quiz-free classrooms as places to do just that. I soon found, however, that the challenging conversations I coveted were not possible without some common knowledge – common knowledge my students plainly lacked” (Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy. New York: Harper One, 2007, pg. 5). Can a teacher lead a productive dialogue on, for example, how the Exodus serves as a paradigm for God’s liberating mission if students have no prior knowledge of the events of the Exodus?

Second, even if it’s good pedagogy, believers should ask if it’s Biblical, especially when applying it to the church and her educational ministries. Though we may take issue with the direction of transformation Freire proposes, we can certainly agree that the goal of the church’s educational ministry is real transformation and not winning The Annual All Church Bible Trivia Challenge. However, the quickest of surveys will lead the student of God’s Word to see that some degree of banking is important; there are certain people who know things and are tasked with conveying these things to others who do not know them. Deuteronomy 6:1-7 gives us two examples: Moses has been commissioned by God to teach the Israelites the commandments who were in turn instructed to pass their knowledge on to their children. The Great commission is another example where some people, namely the disciples, with certain knowledge, namely what Jesus taught, are commissioned to go to other and tell them what they would not otherwise know. Catechetical education, which is largely depositing information in a receptacle, has a place in the church. Once the true information has been learned, we must help people see how this truth transforms their existence and can be brought to bear on the reality they find themselves in. Spiritual vs.

Political/Economic Oppression: This brings us to another critique of Freire’s educational philosophy. While Freire speaks of oppression on nearly every page of his work, he sees it solely in terms of socio-political or socio-economic oppression. Freire speaks eloquently on the task of unveiling reality, exposing the currents within our structures that carry people along, debunking the myths that are perpetuated, and enabling people to become part of the process of overcoming their “limit situations”. Yet on a biblical analysis, Freire’s understanding of oppression is shallow in that it leaves off the most sinister oppressor – the sinful human heart. Were all structures of authority and resource distribution to undergo a thorough renovation and all forms of injustice rectified, human beings would still be horribly oppressed. Of course that is ridiculously hypothetical and upon a Christian viewpoint impossible, for hearts tainted by sin will not only oppress their owners, but will inevitably lead to oppressive systems as well. Borrowing a page from Schaeffer, we can say to Freire, “Your philosophy is good so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.” Freire is correct in pushing educators to unveil the systems of oppression and currents that carry people along unconsciously in cooperation with those systems. For the Christian educator that means exposing the sinful streams of greed, pride, lust, etc., that run through every human heart and carries them along individually and unconsciously as well as and prior to unveiling how those streams carry us along and oppress us at the societal level. Given Freire’s limited understanding of oppression, his limited understanding of education as primarily a political endeavor is understandable. However, those who have a deeper understanding of oppression will necessarily take a different view of the educational task, one that first addresses the inner spiritual oppression of sin, which is the fount of all other types of oppression we encounter. Objects vs.

Subjects of Transformation: One final critique must be made. Freire emphasizes throughout his work that educators must allow students to be full participants in the transformation of society in a more fully humanized one. Freire writes, “It is absolutely essential that the oppressed participate in the revolutionary process with an increasingly critical awareness of their role as Subject of the transformation” (Freire, 127). At one level, that works in the church as well as we call people to the task evangelism, to spread the good news of the kingdom of God, and to live out the gospel in concern for social justice. On another level, however, it is completely hostile to the gospel. Freire loathes the idea that oppressed might be treated as “welfare recipients” or as objects of liberation rather than subjects who bring about their own liberation. While it is true that believers can contribute to their liberation from external social, political, and economic oppression, it is patently untrue that they contribute in any way to their liberation from their true oppressor, namely sin and guilt. The preaching of the gospel reminds us every week that we truly are recipients of welfare, that before we’re ever subjects of societal transformation, we are objects of God’s liberating work. 

Conclusion Certainly other critiques are valid. For example, Freire’s understanding of truth as something constructed in dialogue rather than something the objectively exists has been rightly criticized. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss Freire out of hand because of these shortcomings, massive though they are. When read through a biblical filter, there is still much that the church can learn from Freire. It is, after all, easy to turn people in our churches into passive receptacles of biblical information. Freire reminds us that in our teaching the retention of information is at best a penultimate goal. The truth we teach is a transformative truth, and we must treat it as such. Moreover, Freire rightly emphasizes that good teachers will lift the curtain on reality and reveal to people the forces that are working to subjugate them (John seems to be doing just that in the book of Revelation). Also, that this is often best done in dialogue where students and teachers come humbly ready to learn from each other can hardly be doubted. Other points of agreement could likely be found, but in the end Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education is too divergent from a truly Christian approach to education to be accepted on the whole.